Elected officials make budget demands
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
November 9, 2009 · Updated 9:59 AM
Six elected Island County officials signed onto a stinging open letter to the county commissioners, demanding that they take certain steps before making cuts in their departments to plug the $1.2 million shortfall in the 2010 general fund budget.
The letter insists that the commissioners cut funding for all non-mandated programs, which would include the WSU Extension Service and parks; renegotiate a large increase in the public defense contract; dip into reserve funds; and work with the unions to gain concessions.
“We are convinced, both individually and collectively, that further cuts in essential county functions will guarantee our inability to lawfully carry out our essential duties,” the letter states. “We do not believe it is an overstatement to say we are on the verge of collapse.”
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown read the letter aloud to the three commissioners during a budget session Wednesday afternoon. The commissioners appeared surprised and even hurt by the words, but had few words in response to the officials who attended the meeting.
“That helps,” Commissioner John Dean said, noting the number of elected officials who signed the letter.
Prosecutor Greg Banks, who wrote much of the letter, said he and the other officials decided to take dramatic action after a meeting about the budget deficit last Wednesday. Budget Director Elaine Marlow handed out sheets showing an 8 percent reduction in all departments, which she said was a starting point for discussions.
“We really all just came together and said this process is falling apart,” Banks said.
In an odd replay of last year’s budget process, Banks complained that elected officials and department heads didn’t learn about the problem until after their budget sessions with commissioners. He said he was told at a September meeting that his request to hold his budget at the current level was “appropriate.”
Now, the commissioners are rushed to come up with a draft of a balanced budget on Monday to meet the statutory deadline. Commissioner Helen Price Johnson complained Wednesday that she hasn’t had a chance to look at the numbers. The commissioners must approve the final budget by the end of the year.
In an interview Thursday, Marlow said she didn’t raise an alarm earlier because she hoped that the county could save about $736,000 a year by changing the county’s medical insurance, but that fell through when an agreement couldn’t be reached with the unions.
The commissioners did, however, decide to put non-represented employees on the less-expensive plan, saving about $180,000 a year.
In the letter, the officials made it clear that their departments cannot handle any more significant cuts after weathering $4 million in reductions over the last year. The recession led to a dramatic drop in revenues from sales tax, new construction, fees for service and investment interest; the revenue problem will likely continue through next year.
Brown, Banks, Assessor Dave Mattens, Auditor Sheilah Crider, Clerk Sharon Franzen and Treasurer Linda Riffe are all signatories. The letter doesn’t appear to be a partisan move. All three commissioners and four of the officials who signed the letter are Democrats.
The letter lays out four steps that the officials exhort the commissioners to take before turning to their departments for budget cuts. It states that the commissioners suspend all funding for non-mandated programs, which are those not required by state law. They include parks, the WSU Extension Service, senior services, animal shelters and an impaired driving prevention program.
The elected officials wrote that such cuts are “both inevitable and overdue.”
“Though important, these programs are not essential functions of county government, and therefore cannot compete for county funds in the current climate,” the letter states.
According to Marlow, cutting all those programs would save the county about $740,000 a year.
Next, the letter states that the commissioners should renegotiate or suspend all contracts with private entities providing services to the county.
“We have been stunned at the ease with which the board has increased outlays to private contractors while tightening the budget stranglehold on our departments,” the letter states.
The letter cites the nearly $200,000 increase in the public defense contract as one example. Banks said hiring former Planning Director Jeff Tate to do long-range planning at $150 an hour is another example of spending that wasn’t absolutely necessary; Commissioner Angie Homola voted against both the defense contract and the contract with Tate.
The third step the letter urges is for commissioners to use a portion of the fund balance. The county has a 10 percent contingency fund of $2.2 million, plus nearly $900,000 in extra cash that will be left over at the end of the year.
“It appears that there is a total of approximately $3 million in cash that the county may use to cover emergencies and still have sufficient cash to cover monthly expenditures. This is an emergency,” the officials wrote.
Lastly, the officials urged the commissioners to send a letter to the unions asking for their help in crafting a solution, stressing that a lack of cooperation would ensure the maximum number of layoffs. The elected officials wrote that the commissioners would gain credibility with the unions if they first made the other cuts, the open letter urges.
The issue of union concessions came up at a meeting last week when Human Resource Director Larry Larson complained that the labor leadership has been unwilling to discuss a proposal to move to a health insurance plan that would decrease the county’s costs.
Deputy Darren Crownover, president of the Island County patrol deputy guild, said he agrees with the letter the elected officials presented to the commissioners. He said his members wouldn’t agree to make major concessions unless county leaders first make the cuts, or make progress toward the cuts, that are outlined in the letter.
Crownover said he would be hard pressed to justify a concession after the commissioners adopted the large increase in the contract with the firm providing public defense. The commissioners approved an increase from $380,000 to more than $560,000 a year for attorney Tom Pacher’s firm.
“Where did that money come from?” Crownover asked.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.